It's not difficult to figure out why Justin Timberlake has been pushing an old-school vibe in the run-up to his third studio album, The 20/20 Experience. He performed at the Grammy Awards and more recently on Saturday Night Live wearing a tux, leading a similarly clad band stationed behind Art Deco music stands.
"As long as I got my suit and tie, I'm-a leave it all on the floor tonight," he sings in Suit & Tie, the snazzy lead single from the album, in stores this week. "All pressed up in black and white, and you're dressed in that dress I like."
True, the singer favors any era — the Jazz Age, early 1960s Motown, you name it — where formal wear ruled. But with his first album in more than six years, Timberlake is reminding us that as quickly as music moves today, great style persists.
It's an especially important point given that since the singer's last album, 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift have taken over his spot at the center of pop. And then there's that other Justin — Bieber.
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Timberlake, 32, wasn't invisible while those successors rose: He was acting, designing clothes and taking part in a relaunch of MySpace, of all things.
But it's been long enough since he identified as a working musician that The 20/20 Experience seems like an attempt to reclaim Timberlake's space in a deeply altered landscape; it makes a play for timelessness at a moment of unabashed ephemerality.
Partly that means doing a bit of time travel. Working with producer Timbaland, who also helmed the bulk of FutureSex/LoveSounds and several tracks on 2002's Justified, Timberlake punches up vintage styles with modern touches, as in That Girl, which marries Al Green's lithe Memphis R&B to a percolating drum-machine beat, and Suit & Tie, which interrupts a lush Philly-soul groove for a breakdown seemingly modeled on the drowsy Houston hip-hop variant known as chopped-and-screwed.
Other songs boast similarly elaborate structures, moving through multiple movements like those in the album's eight-minute opener, Pusher Love Girl. Here Timberlake follows a sweeping orchestral intro with a funky main section and then an extended coda in which he raps with surprising authority; later, Strawberry Bubblegum metamorphoses from a chilly electro jam into a warm organ vamp a la Stevie Wonder's You Are the Sunshine of My Life.
In the ultra-busy Let the Groove Get In, he and Timbaland throw in even more — it's basically Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' as remade by the house band in Fela!, the Broadway musical about the late Nigerian singer Fela Kuti.
You might take the presence of these vivid sounds and textures as a sign that Timberlake is grasping at attention spans that have shortened since he was last making records. But the confident, assured way he deploys them — all but three of the disc's 10 tracks stretch past the seven-minute mark — reflect ambition (in the Wonder/Prince/Michael Jackson tradition) more than desperation; he's never in a hurry to show you everything he can do, even when a little speed might have improved the music, as in the album's drifting and very pretty closer, Blue Ocean Floor.
Timberlake holds The 20/20 Experience together too with lyrics that stay resolutely on the topic of romance, be it the sex-as-drug metaphors in Pusher Love Girl, the sex-as-candy metaphors in Strawberry Bubblegum or the sex-as-interstellar-force metaphors in Spaceship Coupe. "Everybody knows that you're from outer space," he sings as Timbaland's synths surf waves of reverb. "But honey, I just wanna turn out this space with you."
Several songs suggest he's been thinking about the changing nature of celebrity, as well. Cameras and reflective surfaces turn up in Tunnel Vision and Mirrors, and That Girl finds him insisting, "I don't pay attention to the talk," as only an experienced veteran of tabloid coverage could.
But on an album whose title apparently references the accuracy of hindsight, that deep-read content feels ancillary to Timberlake's overall idea that love and old-fashioned talent can prove everlasting. He'll go away again, no doubt, and then he'll return to shine once more. That's what stars do.
The 20/20 Experience | ★★★★☆